When Grantland founder Bill Simmons parted ways with ESPN in an acrimonious divorce last year, many people speculated about what the star sports broadcaster and columnist would do. Would he join another large media company or strike out on his own? Now fans have their answer: Simmons said last week he plans to create a new site called The Ringer that will feature news and commentary as well as podcasts.
In other words, Simmons is doing what many hoped he would do following the breakup with ESPN, which is to launch something much like Grantland, the site he created within the sports network, but as a stand-alone, micro-media entity.
According to an interview that Sports Illustrated did with Ringer editor-in-chief (and former Grantland staffer) Sean Fennessey, the new venture will start with an email newsletter and podcasts, as well as the HBO talk show that Simmons recently signed a deal to do. But it will add more features and expand its coverage area beyond just sports in other areas such as food. And the site is to be hosted by Medium, the blog platform run by former Twitter CEO Evan Williams.
How the new company is being financed, and how it will pay the bills, remains unclear. In the SI interview, Fennessey said the new site was at a "financially healthy place" to launch, and already has 12 staff members, but that he "couldn't really get into" how it was being funded. He also said that the site doesn't necessarily have to make money on its own because of the other ventures it is involved in.
From the sounds of it, The Ringer will be relying heavily on podcasts for revenue. But will that be enough? Podcasts have proven to be a fairly robust market for advertising so far, at least for high-profile ones like Serial. But the market is also expanding rapidly, which tends to drive prices down. Subscriptions would be another potential revenue source for Simmons, something that appears to be working for micro-media sites like The Information tech news startup and Stratechery, analyst Ben Thompson's one-man operation.
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In an analysis after the ESPN split, Thompson said that Simmons' podcast was getting 400,000 downloads monthly, and that some much smaller podcasts were getting upwards of $10,000 per episode in advertising. That kind of math certainly bodes well for Simmons, since it means a single podcast could produce as much as $6 million a year (a spokesman for Simmons said that the podcast currently gets about 500,000 downloads a month).
After the sports broadcaster and much of the Grantland team left ESPN, there was a lot of debate about whether the site had made any financial sense for the Disney-owned sports network, or whether it was an expensive vanity project or misplaced branding exercise. In effect, the launch of The Ringer will test that question by making it obvious whether a Simmons-run Grantland-style media venture can stand on its own two feet.
As the relationship between Simmons and ESPN soured last year, driven in part by a dust-up over his disparaging comments about NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the sports network's response (which was to suspend him briefly), ESPN insiders started talking to anyone who would listen about how Grantland wasn't really a great boon for the company in financial terms.
The site got fewer than 6 million unique visitors a month, they said, so not really enough to move the needle for a company the size of ESPN, and the advertising revenue was lackluster at best, according to the network. Then there were the salaries of all the editorial staff—who numbered as many as 50 at the peak—and the cost of Simmons' rumored $3-million salary. As a result, the site was "not even close to making money," they said.
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To some, however, ESPN's disparagement of Grantland seemed like sour grapes, an attempt to paint Simmons' departure as something insignificant in the broader scheme of things at the network. But if the site was so underwhelming financially, then why did ESPN acquire sports analyst Nate Silver's Five Thirty Eight site—in what seemed like an attempt to duplicate the Grantland model—and launch another (somewhat troubled) personality-driven vertical called The Undefeated?
In the end, fans of Bill Simmons won't be the only ones watching The Ringer and its growth closely. Anyone interested in the future of media will also be following along to see whether Simmons can make the stand-alone model work—and some at ESPN may even be watching as well, to see whether they missed the boat by letting Simmons escape.